For All Mankind on Apple TV+ : Out-of-this-world drama or a space-based catastrophe?

The COVID-19 lockdown has provided plenty of time to devote to TV Series we’ve all been meaning to get around to, and one that’s been on my mind is Apple TV+’s “For All Mankind”. Last year, tech-giant Apple dipped its toe into the streaming service market, launching its competitor to the likes of Netflix and Disney+. If I’m honest, I wasn’t ennamered with their offerings; the service is designed around providing high-budget, high-quality, exclusive shows all for a mere £4.99 per month. Why I don’t think it works? There’s no back catalogue — the lure of the likes of Netflix is they have box set upon box set of your exisitng favourites to gourge on, and the exclusives are an added bonus. Apple doesn’t have that back catalogue to lure people in, so somehow they have to get people interested in their shows in another way. Fortunately, some of the Apple execs. must have been thinking along similar lines so at launch they made the first two episodes of all their shows free to watch. 

There was only one show that truly got me interested in the Apple TV+ showreel: “For All Mankind”, the story of what would happen if the Soviet Union had landed man on the Moon first. This sounds perfect: a high-budget, ten-part series set in perhaps my favourite period of history with a fundamental twist. Duly, on release day I watched the first episode and… was really quite dissapointed. It was slow, boring even, laying out the foundations of the world and characters but not much else. I was not sufficiently hooked to even bother with the second free episode. 

But then the world is hit by the greatest crisis of a generation, and one of the very few silver-linings within the turmoil is many online content companies have made parts of their library free to keep us entertained while we stay inside. And Apple has also joined in on the action, putting some of their series’ up as “free for a limited time”. Amongst them, “For All Mankind”, and I could not resist giving it another try. Was it worth it?

At first, I wasn’t sure. This show definitely suffers from all the “good bits” being toward the end. “For All Mankind” is definitely a slow-burner, which is a bit of a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it means we become really engrossed in the lives of these characters, which makes the dramatic and exciting elements in the end all the more gut-wrenching, but at the same time — at least for me — you can be looking at your watch sometimes and thinking when is something going to happen?! It’s probably episode 3 or 4 before the story really picks up, and this — somewhat ironically — reminds me of the quintissential spaceflight book: Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff”. Wolfe spends the first few chapters in a muddled haze of world-building and description, immersing the reader in the world of the pioneer astronauts. Where book and TV differ, however, is while Wolfe dances with tantalizing prose that creates such a vivid image of life at Pax River, “For All Mankind” settles for a somewhat drawn out and uninteresting look at some of the key characters.

The way characters are used in “For All Mankind” is interesting too. There’s no real main character; I suppose if you’d have to pick one it would be astronaut Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), but even he takes a back seat for a couple of the episodes. The script cleverly juggles multiple characters, each with their own sub-plots, bringing them in and out of focus as the plot requires. I quite liked this, as it reflects what life really would’ve been like as part of these space missions: a team effort, where everyone plays their bit and it’s not all just one person’s journey. Saying that, it could be a little jarring at times when characters who have become incredibly focussed upon for a couple of episodes are suddenly missing from the next few. Even worse, one character in particular is featured in virtually every episode, and her story seems to go… nowhere in particular. I assume she’ll be picked up and be a key player in a future series, but for me it felt like her entire story could’ve been cut and the show would be no lesser for it. 

I think that the main problem with “For All Mankind” is that it does not know its audience, or its confused as to who it wants its audience to be. Let me explain: on the one hand, its appealing to the likes of me, the hardcore space-obsessed, who’ve read all the books, seen all the films, know all the names and the stories. “For All Mankind” goes all-in on the assumed knowledge front: there’s scenes and conversations and references that probably only make sense if your familiar with the story of American spaceflight pre-1969. And so you can probably imagine that what this audience really wants to see is action is space, right? Well, this is where it starts to fall down because it ends up that a lot of the content of “For All Mankind” is based on Earth and I ended up thinking at points this plot has very little actually to do with spacefilight. For the most part, “For All Mankind” is a character study, with the lunar missions and space-race merely a backdrop for various emotional and gut-wrenching sub-plots. This is where I think the producers missed the mark with who their audience are: is the Apollo fanatics who are desperate for some lunar action, or is it those seeking a plain and simple character drama, who might then miss out on all the nuances of the plot? I suppose what I’m really getting at is, for the most part, not enough space! 

Saying that, after the first few episodes I was hooked. Though I felt some of the Earth-bound sub-plots were a little unnecessary, I could not get enough of the action in space and on the Moon. The final two episodes of “For All Mankind” are perhaps some of the best I’ve seen of any series, with the tension dialled right up to eleven. Specifically I’m thinking of a scene in Episode 9, where there’s a sudden and severe tonal shift that really made my heart drop in a way I didn’t expect. You’re lulled into a false sense of security before the showrunners pull the rug from beneath your feet and you’re left on the edge of your seat for five or ten minutes of pure stress. It was exceptional — but these scenes, however, are too few and far between for my liking. 

 

As you’d expect, the visuals of “For All Mankind” are spectacular, the producers nail the look and feel of the spacecraft and NASA facilities of the time: you can almost smell the sweat and tobacco smoke that pervades every set. The world does feel real, even if I do have some gripes with some of the supposed technological leaps they’ve made for the purpose of the show (videochat? In the 70s?). Little things like this suspend my disbelief somewhat, but if you’re willing just to accept the scenes as presented to you, “For All Mankind” is incredbily immersive. It’s certainly got its faults, and is definitely a show where you have to battle through the first couple of hours, but once it gets into its stride “For All Mankind” is a thrilling tale of what might’ve been.

My Rating /100

You can watch “For All Mankind”, for free for a limited time, here:                              Go to Show                         

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